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It Sure is About the Economy, Sir

by Ejaz Haider

SS Mirza—AFP

History proves that economic security must precede hard security

Some days ago, Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa delivered a keynote address at a Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry seminar in Karachi. His speech was WhatsApped by the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations directorate to many across the country.

Gen. Bajwa, among other things, noted that (a) there’s an interplay between the economy and security; (b) Pakistan’s “economy is showing mixed indicators”; (c) the challenges faced by Pakistan necessitate that we turn the economy around; and (d) we (the security forces) have done our job, it’s now your (economists, entrepreneurs) job to improve the economy.

In some detail, he mentioned that while growth had picked up, the debt situation was alarming. Infrastructure and energy had improved but the current account balance remained unfavorable and the tax-to-GDP ratio remained abysmally low. So, essentially, the government has to expand the tax base, “bring in fiscal discipline and ensure continuity of economic policies.”

He also said that “Pakistan is capable of creating sufficient fiscal space to address underlying structural problems through tax reforms, documenting [the] economy, diversifying the export base, and encouraging savings to finance a level of investment that could sustain [a] growth rate higher than the rise of [the] population.”

Unsurprisingly, the Army chief’s comments and the commentary by DG-ISPR Major-General Asif Ghafoor on his boss’ speech begot criticism from the government. While, what Bajwa said is Econ 101 and economists point to these aspects all the time (how to turn things around is of course far more complex), the criticism focused on the legality and probity of Bajwa’s comments as a government servant: can he, under the service rules, say all that?

Critics also pointed to the fact that the seminar was organized by the FPCCI at the ‘request’ of the Army, with the ISPR in the lead. An invitation card, essentially bearing DG-ISPR’s name, was circulated on WhatsApp groups. Put another way, the civilian side, namely the PMLN government, argued that this was a deliberate exercise to publicly embarrass the government and an undue ‘intervention’ into an area the military does not deal with.

The counterargument that the economy impacts everyone and, therefore, the Army chief was within his rights to express himself on the economic situation is counter-countered by the argument that so does hard security or the lack thereof but one is unlikely to see the finance minister arranging a seminar and holding forth on military operations, a mixed bag. This counter-counter is difficult to dismiss because in irregular wars, essentially the kind we have been fighting, the civilians are, and have been, as vulnerable to deadly attacks as the soldiers.

So, yes, the civilians will hold forth on hard security, as will the military on the economy, but at the meetings of the Cabinet Committee on National Security, the proper forum for discussing the national security strategy, which is the all-encompassing, umbrella concept under which everything else unfolds.

But let’s put this aside and focus on what Gen. Bajwa said about the interplay of security and economy. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer. To think that an individual can have clout with empty or shallow pockets or that a state without deep pockets can be strong is to upend basic logic.

Yet, this non sequitur has governed our statist existence for more decades than one can remember.

The basic question is not about the interplay because that interplay is an in-the-face reality. The essential question is about the direction of causality: does economic progress lead to hard security or vice versa?

Mercifully, history provides us a clear answer: economic security precedes hard security. History also tells us that pre-World War I & II Germany and Japan, industrial bigwigs, were prepared to cast aside economic rationality to embark on military misadventures that not only led to humiliating capitulations and destruction but also nearly put paid to their pre-wars progress.

Defeats led to rethinking. And since then both have risen Phoenix-like from their ashes.

If this is true, and accepting Bajwa’s, and by extension the military’s deep and patriotic concern about the economy, and ignoring the critics, perhaps there’s need for the Army to see two things very clearly: one, security policy is a sub-sub-set of a national security strategy which must define security far more broadly than the military has ever managed to do. Two, flowing from the first, the emphasis must shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics.

The conduct of policies is, in some ways, akin to what social scientists do. How they will posit a puzzle and work on it through what theoretical framework will determine where they end up. Every framework has its own grooves, its own confinement. One cannot give primacy to hard security (for whatever reasons) and expect economic results from it, even as one can give primacy to economy and expect, if and when required, greater hard security from that work. [NB: Japan hates the atom bomb but does anyone doubt that were it to decide one fine morning that it needed one instead of scrambled eggs that it couldn’t have one for breakfast?]

Through the years, in terms of our threat perceptions, we have been trying to commit suicide for the fear of death, to quote Bismarck. Our foreign policy (as also our trade, commerce, investment et cetera) has become a subset of our security policy, a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Add to that the military’s dominance of security policy and the inevitable problem of bounded rationality that afflicts all large-scale organizations and we have landed, predictably, where we have and about which Gen. Bajwa has shown his concern.

Gen. Bajwa is right about the vital imperative to focus on the economy, he is right that the brittle USSR came unstuck because, inter alia, it was economically unviable. The only thing we now need from this correct assessment is to let the civilian enclave conduct a foreign policy (non-kinetic) backed by a viable security (kinetic) policy.

Of course, the civilian enclave has to answer for its own acts of omission and commission. They are an accursed lot in any case. But the fact is that their stock of sins is more or less the same as that of civilians in other states at a comparable level of development. What those other states does not have is, to quote Pinter’s utterly facetious statement about his work, “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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Ejaz October 17, 2017 - 12:20 am

Excellent, logical and a brave piece
Calling spad a spad is not easy.

Zubair janjua October 18, 2017 - 2:20 pm

You nailed it. Excellent article.

Adil October 22, 2017 - 12:25 am

Hmm good points. But first thing first. Civilian needs to be more patriotic and less self serving. Let’s not shot liquat Ali khan. Or let jinnah Sb die without fuel in ambulance. If you are going to hold power then you have to be worthy enough. But then who is who and what is what.


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